The History of Medieval Islamic Medicine
Free Public Lecture
The Forum Theatre 153, Level 1
T: 0434 142 369
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The medical tradition, which developed in the lands of Islam from the seventh century AD onwards, is rich and variegated. Its history stretches over more than a millennium, and involves people of many languages (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Syriac, Hebrew) and faiths (Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and pagans). Given the breadth of this field, this lecture will focus on several key themes expressed through individual examples, and illustrated by miniatures, diagrams, and artefacts. These themes include:
The Emergence of Islamic Medicine: During the classical age of Islam and under the aegis of the ‘Abbasids' (ca. 750–950), an extremely sophisticated medical tradition emerged. Based mainly on Greek medical theory and practice, it blended its own heritage with the legacy of the other cultures with which it was in contact including the Byzantines, Alexandrians, Sasanians, and Syriac-speaking Christians.
Medical Theory: The system adopted in the learned medical tradition is generally Galenic, and its main features will be explored briefly. We will notably look at Ibn al-Nafis’ ‘discovery’ of the pulmonary transit (and dispel some myths surrounding this topic). In addition we will examine how medical knowledge was organised in some of the most famous medical encyclopaedias of the time, including Avicenna’s Canon.
Medical Practice: In recent times, scholars have raised the question as to what extent the theory described in the medical manuals corresponded to actual practice. Here again, some myths (such as Caesarean sections) will be dispelled, whilst interesting cases of clinical innovation will be presented.
Physicians and Society: Who were the doctors of Damascus and Toledo, and of Cairo and Baghdad? How did they function within the larger society? What public health initiatives were deployed to provide the poor as well as the powerful with access to medical care? These questions will be discussed, with special reference to the hospital and other institutions of Islamic charity, for which the Muslim Middle Ages are deservedly famous.
Popular Medicine: Magic and divination, pious ritual and prophetic medicine formed as much a part of the therapeutic arsenal as more ‘learned’ practices. We will briefly look at some texts and artefacts in order to augment our understanding of medieval responses to disease.
Continuous tradition: To conclude, this lecture will explore the impact of the Islamic medical tradition on both Western and Eastern medicine. European university medicine emerged on the basis of this tradition (in Latin translation), and still continues to be practised today, not only in the Muslim world, but also in the West. It is this examination of these continuities that will round out this thematic historical overview.
Presenter Peter E. Pormann, D.Litt., M.A., D.Phil., M.Phil. (Oxon); M.A. (Leiden); FRAS, is Professor of Classics and Graeco-Arabic Studies at the University of Manchester.